By Vijay Prashad
The warders called us by either our surnames or our Christian names. Each, I felt, was degrading, and I thought we should insist on the honorific ‘Mister.’ I pressed for this for many years, without success. Later, it even became a source of humour as my colleagues would occasionally call me ‘Mr.’ Mandela.
—Nelson Mandela, “Long Walk to Freedom”
Nelson Mandela spent 27 years in prison, 18 of them at Robben Island – the notorious island jail that held the principle leadership of the anti-apartheid movement in South Africa. It was at that jail, with the help of his comrades, that Mandela wrote his story, “Long Walk to Freedom” (published in 1994). In this book, one gets a sense of Mandela as the deeply political figure that he was: a lawyer who fought against apartheid — a lawyer who discovered that the law was the barrier to change and so moved to politics, including terrorist operations against the intransigent apartheid state.
Mandela had a capacious political imagination: he joined the African National Congress (ANC) for its politically left-wing and socially accommodative framework. When he got to prison, most of the prisoners came from the Pan-African Congress (PAC), a black nationalist party that was, in Mandela’s words, “unashamedly anti-Communist and anti-Indian.” Not for him this kind of narrow politics. He always had a large heart and a razor-sharp vision.
Not long after his arrest in 1964, Mandela became the iconic figure of the South African struggle against apartheid – one that was not only against a ghastly political system, not only against the white ruling clique in South Africa, but also against the governments of the Western world which backed the apartheid regime virtually until the end (Mandela appeared on the U.S. terrorist lists until 2008). It was this iconic figure that the world knew from the 1960s until now. Rarely did people engage with Mandela’s ideas: rarely do we hear him quoted for his principled positions. Particularly after the struggles within South Africa weakened the regime and brought it down, it became impossible not to engage with Mandela – but it was only with Mandela as icon, as Madiba, not Mandela as the political person with deeply held views and commitments.